This week’s topic on our CHESS training blog was “the sticky webs of research relationships.” (The CHESS training blog is password-protected and confidential for obvious reasons–students need a place to check in and discuss their research without exposing people in their fieldsites.)

ConfidentialSome students wrote about struggling to navigate conflicts and rivalries between individuals and organizations in their fieldsites. Others wrote about feeling like they are getting the runaround–casual friendliness until would-be participants are “too busy” to be interviewed (possibly true, but it certainly makes research hard). And another student who has great contacts and is immersed in participants’ day-to-day lives in a relatively small community wonders–how will she write about the intimate details of family life in a relatively small community without selling folks out?

This last student’s question expanded my research ethics vocabulary: It’s an issue is called “internal confidentiality” or “deductive disclosure.” What this means is that in most communities, organizations, or workplaces, all it takes is gender + age cohort + another small personal detail, and it becomes possible for an interested insider to narrow down a small set of possible individuals.  Some day, all ethnographers have to write about research participants–and it is almost impossible to provide the rich, ethnographic detail we seek without blowing confidentiality.

While in the field, ethnographers usually try to work on expanding their network beyond initial contacts. In this way, you not only get a larger “n,” you’ll insert a little more doubt in potential “nosy readers” who are knowledgeable about your field site.  You can also head off this problem by talking to research participants about how the data will be used, what health sociologist Karen Kaiser (2009) calls a post-interview consent review.

If that still doesn’t work by the time you are done with fieldwork and writing up, you can also take care in selecting pseudonyms (Guenther 2009). Or consider new journalism techniques like “composite stories” (Zeller 1995) that qualitative researchers sometimes must use to maintain confidentiality when writing up.

A good reminder that the sticky webs and ethical obligations don’t go away just because you’ve physically left your fieldsite!

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